man in front of african surf boards

Modern surfing was born in Hawaii. But wave riding has probably been going on for centuries around the world. Photo: From the cover of the film, Lost Wave: An African Surf Story

The Inertia

Anthropologists, when noting a time period associated with the first human inhabitation of the coast of West Africa, point to fossil kitchen shell middens dating back 170,000 years; dense academic tomes like Traditional Fishing Methods of Africa chronicle shoreline techniques in use over 10,000 years ago. So what? So, consider that 20 years ago I accompanied veteran surf explorers Randy Rarick and John Callahan to a tiny island off the coast of West Africa called Sao Tome. There we encountered a uniquely-indigenous surfing culture: village kids who rode their local waves both on hand-carved bellyboards called tambuas, and on short goffe wood rafts, made specifically for riding surf-ski style.

We were the first contemporary surfers these villagers had ever seen. On a subsequent visit, while filming the 2010 documentary The Lost Wave: An African Surf Story, we interviewed the father of one of these local surfers, who explained that he had passed on this wave-riding tradition to his kids, having been taught by his father, who had, in turn, been taught by his. This anecdotal evidence takes Sao Tome surf culture back to at least the 1930s. Taking into account the development of modern surf culture during that period there is no conceivable way that the sport was introduced to this remote island by 20th-century outsiders, but most probably had been imported millennia ago by the first wave of slaves from coastal Angola, brought to Sao Tome by Portuguese plantation overseers in the 15th century, and then passed down, generation after generation. Which is to say that, with the 170,000-year-old shell midden in mind, what is conceivable is that surfing developed along the coast of West Africa centuries before Polynesia, and eventually Hawaii, was even settled; long before pre-Columbian fishermen first dipped their reed boats in the waves off the coast of what is now Peru. 

A provocative theory, especially as it flies in the face of the long-accepted Polynesian Paradigm, which for years has asserted that all surfers have in their DNA makeup a trace of plumeria. Yet a closer examination of global coastal culture reveals many references to wave riding decidedly not derivative of the Hawaiian art form. Surfing historian Joel T. Smith’s meticulously researched volume The Illustrated Atlas of Surf History includes numerous passages describing 18th and 19th-century surfing in such disparate locales as India, Syria, and Japan.

One particularly intriguing passage involves a sea captain name Phillipe Aubin, who in the year 1756 wrecked his sloop Betsy on the shore of Surinam. The resourceful captain eventually made his way to the island of Tobago where, as described in the published account of his adventures, he encountered local islanders who were “…almost amphibious, spending much of their lives in the sea.” More specifically, a recent, more detailed translation of Aubin’s manuscript revealed this evocative paragraph: “Children, aged 12 and 14, have a unique game that would frighten a European…each one having a plank in their hand, as wide as they can find, they then put their chest on the board, then they abandon themselves to the wave. They advance as far as they like into the sea, all arranged in a row, and let themselves ride on the summit of the swells toward the beach.”

Keep in mind this encounter with an indigenous Caribbean surf culture pre-dates those written about in Captain James Cook’s Pacific voyages by two decades. It also raises (and perhaps answers) the question essential in determining the actual origin of our sport: what distinguishes surfing from wave riding? Three-thousand-year-old pottery paintings depict the aforementioned pre-Colombian Peruvian fisherman plying the surf zone in their reed boats, skillfully riding waves back to shore with their catch. As far back as 800 CE (“current era”), Norse raiders terrorized much of the civilized world in high-bowed knorrs, those clinker-hulled longships, specially designed to be ridden in through the surf on coastlines previously thought safe from depredation. “Let us try the sea steed’s daring,” went one Viking sea song. “And give the chafing courser rein.”  Sounds like fun, yet the operative word here, as expressed in the [now] first recorded description of the sport, is “game.” Which, of course, connotes play, not work.

Coco Ho Ancient Hawaiian Surf Girls Maids on Waves

Ancient Hawaiian surfing looks nothing like its modern version. Photo: Nike 6.0 (L), Maids on the Wave by Wallace Mackay (R)

“I very much do draw a line between surfing as an end to itself, and riding a wave in at the end of a work day,” says preeminent surf historian Matt Warshaw.  “And when talking about surfing’s origins you should make the point that riding waves simply for pleasure most likely developed in one form or another among any coastal people living near warm ocean water.”

This being said, perhaps the salient question should ponder the origin not simply of wave riding, but of a surfing culture. And for this look no further than Hawaii, most significantly the island of Oahu. Peopled in approximately 500 CE, a full century after intrepid Marquesan voyaging canoes first landed on southern-most island of Hawaii, Polynesian proto-surfers discovered in the gently rolling billows of Waikiki the ideal medium in which to develop ‘surf play’ into a more sophisticated activity, with innovation in equipment (finely-tuned olos), technique (standing and trimming across the wave face) and ancillary culture (competition, surf forecasting, songs, and stories) establishing the template by which we define surfing today. For this reason alone Hawaii should be considered the birthplace of “modern” surfing.  Yet hardly the first place that people began riding waves for fun.

“What I love most about this idea, that coastal dwellers throughout time and around the globe have always been drawn to the waves, is that it gets to the universality of surfing,” says Warshaw. “For example, the very first time I brought my son Teddy down to the beach, once he could walk, he ran straight into the ocean. We all do. Not to work, but to play.”

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